Road to Recovery
Students John Nix and Isaac Waters knew that the College of Charleston needed a recovery program on campus. Veterans of Charleston’s extensive recovery community, they saw an opportunity for the College to be a leader in an area that is growing in need and relevance.
They had both seen firsthand the devastating effects of addiction. They knew how quickly things could spiral out of control for young people, and they wanted to make a difference.
“Addiction is rampant,” Nix says. “Drugs and alcohol affect every socio-economic group. In a way, it’s normalized on college campuses. Through the images and videos being shared on social media, it doesn’t look like anything is going wrong. This living life to the extreme somehow looks fun and safe. But it’s not.”
Waters agrees: “You probably don’t want to hear this, but in some ways, the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers set up this mentality of work hard, play hard. Call it the weekend binge drinkers at the neighborhood barbeque. However, as the millennials try to emulate their parents, the play is much harder today because the substances at hand are much stronger. Now, that Friday-to-Sunday fun seeps into Monday and maybe longer. Or maybe, it doesn’t even stop. Today’s substances can intoxicate you for 24 hours at a time, and it’s impossible to get away from. As I learned even in middle school, drugs don’t stop at a school’s front gates.”
However, hope is not all lost. Both Nix and Waters believed that there was a space for students in recovery at the College, and so they got to work. Through their network in the Charleston recovery community, they met Steve Pulley, an MUSC graduate student, at the time, who told them about a similar program in Georgia. With the help of teacher education professor Genny Howe Hay ’82, they were able to talk to Dean of Students Jeri Cabot about bringing this concept to campus.
Starting in the fall of 2015, Nix, Waters and Dean Cabot began meeting weekly to flesh out the idea. Every Monday, the three would get together and figure out short-term action items and the different community members to involve.
One of the critical pieces to fall into place was the support of Judge Brucie Howe Hendricks ’83, Genny Hay’s sister and a Greenville, S.C.–based federal judge who started the state’s BRIDGE Program, a drug court established to help drug offenders overcome their addictions and stay out of jail. Judge Hendricks (the 2015 recipient of the College’s Distinguished Alumna Award) understood how important a program like this could be and was an early champion.
But a program like this also needed a champion on the inside – someone inside Randolph Hall to truly make a difference. When College President Glenn McConnell ’69 learned of the idea, he quickly recognized the possibilities – how it meshed with the College’s public mission, how it could be a program of distinction and how it, if fully implemented, could better serve the College’s student population as a whole. As a priority of the president’s office, the dominoes started falling quickly – with Nix and Waters meeting with campus leadership in student affairs, specifically Executive Vice President Alicia Caudill (on her second day of the job, no less), and later the College’s Board of Trustees.
But an idea is only as good as the resources supporting it. Nix, Waters and Dean Cabot secured a $10,000 grant from Transforming Youth in Recovery and a $25,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services to get the ball rolling, but they needed more help. Working in concert with the student affairs staff and the College’s development office, Nix and Waters connected with Patty Scarafile ’66, former CEO of Carolina One Real Estate, who made a significant lead gift and then hosted a networking event at her home to inspire others to give. Soon, more than $250,000 was raised to launch the program and hire its first director.
Nix, who graduated in spring 2016 with a degree in finance, is still amazed at how everything came together: “The Collegiate Recovery Program represents a lot of hard work by a lot of people. It is one of my proudest achievements, seeing everyone working together, all the wheels spinning at the right time.”
Pillars of Support
“Let me tell you what we are not,” Marchant says. “We are not a treatment program. Our students have already gotten sober and are living lives in recovery. We are an abstinence-based program. Think of it as a sober fraternity-sorority with a focus on community service, mutual support and leadership.”
But the program also serves as a resource to the campus at large. This spring, Marchant began hosting an open forum for the rest of campus who might be interested in sober living. In these meetings, students who may be having difficulty with drugs and alcohol or other addictive behaviors can hear stories from those in recovery as well as find out about ways to seek help.
“Collegiate recovery programs are trying to show other students that it is OK to hit bottom at this age,” Marchant explains, “and we have a better way. As I tell them, it is never a bad idea to get sober. Your grades will get better, your health will get better.
“I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see our recovery students,” Marchant continues, “who have been sober for a few years working with some of the newer students who are just now getting sober or in the process of making that decision to become substance free. The peer-to-peer support is key. They can tell students what sobriety is and, more importantly, what sobriety isn’t. While I may still think of myself as a 20-year-old college student walking around this campus, I know in reality I am a 50-year-old guy – not as relatable as I think I am. When I see our students bridging that gap, and being able to say, ‘I remember this is what I did in early recovery’ – it’s neat to observe these authentic connections and to see how this is going to grow and thrive.”
One of those students serving as a model for sober living is Brittany Vannort, a 29-year-old psychology major. However, as Vannort will tell you, looks can be deceiving.
“This is what a junkie looks like now,” Vannort says, pointing to herself. “It’s not someone holding a paper bag and living under a bridge. It’s someone 29 years old, 22 years old, 19 years old. It’s your next-door neighbor, it’s your best friend, it’s your sister, it’s your cousin.”
Vannort’s own 12-year struggle with addiction reads like a made-for-television cautionary tale. An honor roll student and cheerleader starts experimenting with marijuana at age 13, then becomes a daily drug user in high school; by college, she is using harder drugs and fails out, falling deeper into addiction. Car crashes, relapses, jail sentences and near-death overdoses served as the milestones that marked her early 20s.
“Addiction doesn’t pick and choose the way parents may want to believe,” Vannort observes. “But somehow, I survived and found help and a new life through recovery. I am here to serve as an example that it’s OK to hit rock bottom. Actually, most times, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, it’s scary, but if you face it head on, it gets better and the more likely you’ll have a chance to succeed.”